Yes, in many cases the prison cannot interfere with an inmate’s practice of their chosen religion. However, there are some reasons a prison can legally restrict an inmate’s religious practice depending on the activity and its effect on other duties and responsibilities of running the prison.
There are two main laws pertaining to religion in prisons: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) for federal and the District of Columbia inmates and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that relates to inmates in state and local facilities.
What are My Religious Rights?
All persons in the United States have the right to freely practice their chosen religion. This right is guaranteed by the constitution and enforced through legislation and the Courts. In prisons, the RFRA and RLUIPA govern how that right is accessed by inmates.
Both laws provide a “balancing test.” meaning the prison may not place a substantial burden on an inmate’s exercise of religious beliefs unless that burden is for a very important governmental interest and the burden is the least restrictive way of supporting that interest.
Typically, an inmate can expect access to the following religious rights:
- Free practice of their religion;
- Access to appropriate religious books or texts;
- Ability to attend a religious service within the prison if one is available;
- Engage in prayer; and/or
- Recognizing one’s designated Sabbath day.
The following is a list of religious activities that are not frequently available for inmates depending on the facility:
- An individualized religious diet;
- Certain grooming habits;
- Wearing religious jewelry; and/or
- Having or carrying certain religious objects.
What if I Practice a Non-Mainstream Religion?
Mainstream religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism have received widespread recognition as a religion and prisons routinely make accomodations for many of their well-known practices. Inmates practicing a less commonly recognized religion may face some barriers in access depending on what practices they wish to follow.
However, there is at least one case from 2005 that says that a religion need not be a mainstream faith as long as the person holds that belief sincerely. Followers of mainstream religions may have more access in prison such as having a religious leader conduct services and having recognizable sabbath days within the prison due to a large number of prisoners following that religion.
Those following less known faiths should still have access to prayer, religious texts should they exist, and the ability to practice freely.
Why Do Prisons Sometimes Deny a Religious Practice?
The most common reason a practice is denied is safety in prison. Safety includes a broad range of things and courts provide a good bit of discretion to prison officials when it comes to running the prison. Safety includes protection for other prisoners welfare as well as the guards. Safety can also refer to everyone’s health.
The following are examples that have been used to hinder religious practice on the basis of safety:
- Banning religious objects that can be used as a weapon (ceremonial swords, crucifix made from sharp metal);
- Banning the use of animals (like animal sacrifice);
- Literature that incites violence;
- Certain clothing that has the ability to hide something from the guards; and/or
- Wearing an item that resembles gang colors .
Do I Need a Lawyer?
If your religious rights have been violated, a lawyer can assist in filing the appropriate claim. Filing anything in a prison can be difficult due to the restrictive environment and a criminal lawyer can assist you in determining whether prison officials have acted unlawfully.